A Review and Commentary on: The Church is Israel Now: The Transfer of Conditional Privilege by Charles D. Provan
by Dennis E. Anton
The author (Provan) of this book points out that many Old Testament passages which referred to Israel were referenced by the Apostles in the New Testament as referring to Christians. Another section of the book shows OT titles and attributes of Israel that in the NT are applied to the Church. In a third section are listed OT ethical commands to Israel which are quoted in the NT as applying to the Church.
Certainly we can see from this large body of Scriptural evidence many similarities between the OT nation of Israel and the Church in the NT.
But what precisely does all this evidence point us to?
The author contends, quite dogmatically, that
“The only hypothesis which explains how this could be is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so-called “Racial Israel”) had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church. The privileges and responsibilities of “Racial Israel” now belong to believers in Christ.”
A central question looms large in view of this assertion:
Is Replacement Theology indeed “the only hypothesis” that explains the similarities between Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT?
Because if it is, we then find ourselves at variance with the inerrant Word of God, out of agreement with its doctrinal content, and are in effect ‘butting heads’ with the Apostle Paul over Romans 11:
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!”
vv. 11, 12
“So I ask, did they stumble in order that they may fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure (as a national entity) means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion (as a national entity) mean?”
“For if their rejection (as a national entity) means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance (as a national entity) mean but life from the dead?”
In verses 17-24 Paul, even as the Apostle to the Gentiles, issues a divinely inspired warning to the Gentile Churches against an arrogant, prideful attitude stemming from a belief that God’s sudden outpouring of spiritual blessing upon the Gentiles implied the total and eternal abandonment and contempt of God toward the nation of Israel. Paul’s divine warning continues to be ignored in the Church even up to the present day through the promulgation of Replacement Theology, which reached its full development in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, claiming at that time the repossession of the Kingdom from Israel by assuming God’s foreclosure of the Kingdom promises to Israel to be forever.
(Unfortunately, Roman Catholic eschatology was never Reformed at the time of the Reformation as their soteriology was, but was handed down to us in toto.)
Paul emphatically denies that this has taken place and then proceeds to reveal the mystery of Israel’s salvation, the salvation of an entire future generation of national Israel:
“Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers:”
Paul here reiterates his previous warning to the Gentile Church against having an attitude of arrogance toward the Jews in light of the recent reversal of their respective conditions in the providence of God. The wholly new truth and understanding Paul is about to reveal to the Gentile Church is intended to remove all false assumptions on their part that might lead them into an attitude of pride and arrogance.
“…a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
Paul here reveals the core of this mystery, this new understanding to change the attitude of the Gentile Church: God’s turning away from and rejection of the nation of Israel is both partial in degree and temporary in time. Paul even reveals the ‘when’ of God’s regathering the nation to Himself – when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in,” that is, at the Return of Christ.
Scripture clearly reveals in Mt 21:43 that God had taken away the offer of the Kingdom from the nation because of their rejection of the Messiah. The nation had rejected the only Way by which it could be spiritually prepared for the Kingdom. So the offer went to the Gentiles, who received it with joy, receiving also the Spirit of God by which they became the true ‘Israel of God.’ In unbelief, the nation of Israel became spiritually hardened; yet Paul reveals this hardening to be ‘partial,’ as individual Jews were coming to faith in Christ, themselves becoming part of the true ‘Israel of God.’ Covenant Theology grants this ‘partial’ aspect of this hardening, but it refuses to acknowledge the temporary aspect of the nation’s hardening related by Paul in his very next phrase “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” A red flag is raised whenever someone purposefully ignores a clear section of Scripture. I say ‘purposefully’ because Covenant Theology has a discernable rationale for ignoring this section of Paul’s teaching. One of CT’s main tenets is that there is ‘one People of God,’ and this is true. Where CT errs is in the presumption that this ‘one People of God’ can only consist of the Church by itself; Israel can never be included. The reasoning is that since Israel was rejected because of unbelief, the Church now becomes the spiritual entity that the physical nation of Israel was only the ‘type’ of (this is also the main premise of the book under review).
Therefore, Covenant Theology mistakenly believes that the nation of Israel must be made to die a quiet death in order to preserve a main tenet of CT; the fear being that if a future for the nation of Israel was acknowledged, we would then have two ‘Peoples of God’ instead of one.
“And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.” “
Here Paul expounds on the full implications of Israel’s hardening being of a partial and temporary nature: All Israel will be saved. It is the nature of fallen and unglorified man, even those of the Church, to desire a preeminent place over others. By revealing to the Gentile Church this new truth concerning the future disposition of the nation of Israel, Paul’s obvious goal is to remove any perceived cause for pride and arrogance on their part (“Lest you be wise in your own conceits”). Rather than continuing in their sinful attitude of Gentile exclusivity in God’s blessings at the expense of Israel, Paul intends that this new understanding will bring the Gentile Church to the realization that as the Gentile Church and Israel will both be saved by one and the same Spirit, they will eventually both be one in Christ.
The quotation in vv. 26,27 is from Isaiah 59:20,21 in the Old Testament. We are told by some, including the author of the book under consideration, that any reference to Israel in the OT must be ‘reinterpreted’ to mean ‘the Church.’ Paul is quoting this OT verse in an obvious future context, the future salvation of the nation of Israel. Yet this verse tells us that “The Deliverer… will banish ungodliness from Jacob(Israel)…when I take away their sins.” The reference here to Israel clearly cannot be referring to the Church, as the Church’s sins had already been taken away by the death and resurrection of Christ previous to Paul’s writing of this letter to the Romans. Thus, the Scriptures themselves bear witness against the practice of some in ‘reinterpreting’ the clear meaning of OT Scripture in this regard.
“But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
Now Paul explains why God will save ‘all Israel’:
God has placed His eternal love in election upon ethnic Israel before the foundation of the world, confirming His love for Israel through the covenants to the forefathers. The irrevocable gifts and the calling of God, God’s grace in election and salvation, are here stated explicitly as part of Paul’s explanation of the mystery of Israel’s salvation.
So, far from involving “The Transfer of Conditional Privilege” as stated by the author in the subtitle of his book, what we have seen in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the unconditional grace of God in electing love for Israel which will irrevocably result in Israel’s national salvation after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” One marvels at how a Covenant Theologian could so completely misconstrue the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant as to interpret Israel’s failure to keep it as cause for their utter rejection by God. To illustrate how invalid is this argument from Covenant Theology, consider the case if Israel had succeeded at keeping the Mosaic Covenant, thereby avoiding being rejected by God: Israel would then have succeeded at attaining the salvation of God by the works of the Law! An unscriptural, invalid argument will always produce an unscriptural, invalid result. Covenant Theology is requiring that the nation of Israel obtain its salvation by obedience to the Mosaic Law (by the works of the Law), and without a general outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the nation, as was sent upon the Church at Pentecost. In its presumptuousness, CT has ‘stacked the deck’ against Israel by requiring its salvation to be conditional, conditioned upon its obedience to the Mosaic Law, but allowing the Church to be saved by grace (the only way). As God’s electing love is evident in the Scriptures toward both entities, national Israel and the Church, it is likewise evident that God will, by His grace alone, lead both to salvation through faith in Christ alone. Thank God that He does not judge the Church by the same standards that Covenant Theologians would have God judging the nation of Israel! The Church herself, likewise, would then be utterly rejected by God!
To summarize, the issue raised by this book is clear-cut and demands a response.
This book represents the position of Covenant Theology that national Israel, through its disobedience to God, has disinherited and lost all the blessings previously promised it by God, and these blessings have been transferred to the Church, the Church now having replaced the nation of Israel as the new people of God.
The Apostle Paul, as minister to the Gentiles, warns the Gentile Church in Romans 11 against an attitude of ‘arrogance’ and ‘being wise in your own conceits’ concerning precisely this same issue: Has God indeed cast off the nation of Israel forever? Has the Gentile Church replaced Israel and inherited the blessings of God that were hers, becoming, so to speak, the new ‘king of the hill?’ In answering these questions, Paul emphatically denies these charges with a “By no means!” and proceeds to reveal a truth which had not been previously revealed, a mystery, for the expressed purpose “Lest you be wise in your own conceits.” God had indeed taken away the Kingdom from Israel (Mt 21:43), but only temporarily, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And then all Israel, the entire nation, will be saved. Paul then confirms God’s electing love for Israel and His promises to the forefathers, and declares “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
The tension between these two points is palpable. This is a moment of decision for some. The Apostle Paul will not budge an inch. He stands firmly on his authority as an apostle by the will of God. The Word of God is unmoved. It will not be dethroned by the requirements of a manmade systematized theology.
How can the impasse be resolved?
Perhaps the author’s hypothesis is not the only possible answer. If an hypothesis could be found that could satisfactorily explain the tremendous similarities between the nation of Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT and harmonize with Paul’s teaching in Romans 11, we might then arrive at the actual and true Scriptural position.
We do acknowledge that there exists only one way of salvation, that is, by grace through faith. Since this is true, everyone who is to be saved is saved in this one way; all who enter into eternal life enter it through the one Door, the one Way, the one Gate. Because there is only one Way, there is only one People of God.
Speaking of those in the Church, the Body of Christ, Paul writes in 1Cor12:13:
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
Again, speaking of the oneness of Jews and Gentiles within the Church, Paul writes in Gal 3:28:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male not female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Once again Paul writes in Col 3:11:
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
Paul makes it abundantly clear that in Christ, in one Spirit, Jews and Gentiles are one; they are the one People of God. Since Jews and Gentiles in the Church, being in one Spirit become one People of God, this wonderful teaching of the Apostle Paul equally applies to an entire future generation of Jews sealed by the same Spirit of God when, as Paul said, “all Israel will be saved.” This salvation is the one promised in Ezekiel 36:23b-28 at the Return of Christ, when God will pour out His Spirit upon the nation in the far/consummate fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17-21:
“And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
Jews and Gentiles becoming one People of God in the Church illustrates the greater truth and fulfillment that a future generation of the nation of Israel, saved in its entirety, along with the Church, will together become the one People of God in the Kingdom of God at the Return of Christ, all being made one in Christ by the same Spirit of God, by which both Israel and the Church are enabled “to see and to enter the Kingdom of God”(Jn3:3,5).
Now we can begin to see the similarities between the nation of Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT in a whole new light. The unmistakable language of God’s electing love and calling is so obviously present for both Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT, not to indicate that one of the entities, the Church, has replaced the other, Israel; but to affirm the glorious and wonderful truth that both entities, saved Israel and the Church are together to become the one People of God in the Kingdom of God.
This new understanding also obviously removes the antagonism between Replacement Theology’s dumping of the nation of Israel into the dustbin of history and Paul’s emphatic declaration of Israel’s future and glorious salvation.
My prayer is that this understanding of the relationship between Israel and the Church may be a blessing to those who will receive it, and that it might help us all to better adore and worship our wonderful God who loves us beyond our feeble ability to comprehend.